Muslim families gather at Raimondi Park in West Oakland to pray during Eid Al-Fitr on May 13, 2021. Credit: Yemeni American Association Bay Area

أقراء هذة القصة بالعربي

When Amani Almatri’s oldest daughter was in kindergarten at an Oakland elementary school, she told her mom she wanted to wear a hijab, the veil that some Muslim women and girls cover their heads and hair with. Although she did not have to start wearing it at such a young age, once she expressed an interest in it, Almatri said she encouraged her daughter so she could get used to the practice. But soon after she started wearing the headscarf, her daughter, now a seventh grader, faced a barrage of questions from her classmates. 

“The children would sit behind her, they’d ask her too many questions, like ‘Why do you have to wear this? Why do you have this on your head?” Almatri told The Oaklandside with the support of Bilquis Alawi, a parent organizer with Bay Area PLAN. “Whenever children bothered or bullied her for anything, she would stay quiet and not tell anybody or defend herself.”

Almatri, who is from Yemen, a country located on the Arabian Peninsula, is hopeful that the Oakland Unified School District board’s recent decision to provide more support to Yemeni and other Arabic-speaking families could help prevent some of the harassment and insensitivity her children face at school from other students and even school staff. Almatri is also a leader with Bay Area PLAN, a parent advocacy group that supported the resolution and trains parents in English, Spanish, and Arabic to lead campaigns for more resources for their schools.

Last month, the school board unanimously voted to direct district officials to hire more Arabic translators and interpreters, especially those that are familiar with the Yemeni dialect, conduct sensitivity training on Yemeni and Arabic culture, and recognize the holidays Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha on the school calendar. 

Oakland’s Yemeni community has been steadily growing over the last decade and many families have children enrolled in OUSD schools. However, it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many Yemeni families live in Oakland or attend OUSD schools because of imprecise demographic questions on school enrollment and census forms. Because of the way government agencies classify race and ethnicity, Yemeni Americans and other Middle Eastern groups are often categorized as white. 

District officials have tried to count Yemeni students by inferring from the number of students who speak Arabic at home and list Yemen as their birth place, but that leaves out those students who were born in the U.S. or speak English at home. There are 871 OUSD students from Arabic-speaking families, and 387 students who were born in Yemen who speak Arabic.

Hesham Hussain, who worked with OUSD director VanCedric Williams to craft the resolution, guessed that the district serves about 1,000 Yemeni students, and that there are about 10,000 Yemeni people living in Oakland. This would make Yemenis the majority of Arabic-speaking newcomer students and Arabic-speaking foreign-born students in the district. 

Over the past few years, the Yemeni American Association in the Bay Area and the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals have been hosting discussions with Yemeni families about their experiences in Oakland, and their struggles with navigating the school system emerged as an issue, said Dhaifallah M. Dhaifallah, who does public relations for the Yemeni American Association. When Williams was elected last year, Dhaifallah began working more closely with him on the legislation.

“What we’re trying to do is provide some cultural sensitivity to our Muslim students, and let them know that now that they’re here in America, we embrace them and acknowledge them as well,” Williams said last month.

Yemenis started immigrating to the U.S. in larger numbers following the Arab Spring in 2011, when revolutions in several Middle Eastern countries ousted long-standing governments. In Yemen, different groups fought for power after the president was removed, and in 2014 a civil war began when the rebel Houthi group took over the country’s capital city, Sana’a. As the violence escalated, Yemenis already in the U.S. rushed to bring their other family members to safety. 

“The process for visas was expedited in the latter days of Obama’s presidency and a lot of Yemeni Americans were able to bring over their family members in a fairly fast manner,” said Hussain, who also serves as the national board president for the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals, an organization that works to support Yemeni Americans’ academic achievements. “Since then, there’s been an influx of Yemenis coming over the past five years, even though it was impacted by the Muslim travel ban.”

After Donald Trump became president in 2017, he announced a ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries, including Yemen. In the year after the ban was enacted, visas granted to immigrants from Yemen decreased by 83%, according to a report from Quartz. This year, President Joe Biden rescinded the ban

Almatri, a mom of six, came to the U.S. with her husband in 2007 so their children could receive a better education. They returned to Yemen for a visit in September 2014, days before the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, she said. 

“Years ago we went to Yemen and we stayed there for a little while, but we had to run away because of the war,” Almatri said. “We were thankful that we came here before it got that bad in Yemen.”

By adding the Eid holidays to the school calendar, the district isn’t giving students and staff additional days off, but the goal is to make teachers and school staff aware so they can be more mindful when planning test days or other school events. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer, and Eid al-Adha is the festival of sacrifice, and also marks the end of Hajj, a five-day pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. 

The decision sparked a discussion between board members about recognizing more religious holidays, like Diwali, a Hindu celebration, and Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. Board members suggested coming up with a list of significant cultural and religious holidays to include with the school calendar. 

Oakland Unified currently employs one full-time Arabic translator/interpreter and is hiring a second, according to the district website. Last month’s resolution directs the district to hire more, along with more teachers and staff who are familiar with Yemeni and Muslim culture.

With more interpreters, the burden can be taken off of students like Almatri’s oldest daughter, who helps her Arabic-speaking mom communicate with school officials. 

“Now that my daughter is in seventh grade and understands both languages, she helps me a lot and makes things easier for me. I feel like I’m putting a lot of pressure on her too,” Almatri said. “I want her to help me communicate with teachers, or if there’s meetings. She does a lot for me.”

Almatri is also hopeful that training for teachers and staff on Muslim cultural practices will help her communicate better with her children’s teachers. For example, during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day, Almatri asked if her kids could be excused from physical activities during P.E.

“They would be surprised, and ask why they need to fast. I can’t explain why and how because I don’t speak English,” she said. 

While many of the changes could significantly improve the district’s communication and support for Yemeni, Muslim, and Arabic-speaking families, some advocates think more could be done. 

Horea Alroaini, a Yemeni mom of two students at East Oakland PRIDE Elementary, would like to see more cultural exchanges in schools, allowing students and staff to learn about each other’s backgrounds. One idea she suggested is “museum day,” where students each get a classroom to decorate in their culture. To help others learn more about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, Alroaini proposed hosting casual conversations between all groups of students and their families, where they can ask questions of each other about Ramadan, or the hijab, or other aspects of the culture that they’re ignorant about without feeling ashamed. 

She also recommended creating extra after-school classes to help Middle Eastern families acclimate to the cultural norms in the U.S. For example, in Yemen, boys and girls attend separate schools. When families immigrate and attend public school in the U.S., the boys are “shocked they’re with girls, and girls are shocked to be with boys,” Alroaini said.  

Hussain thinks that the resolution is the least the district could do to help Arabic speaking students and families. 

“The resolution is not a huge accomplishment or a huge deal in itself because we are a large community and we have been underserved and underrepresented for the longest time,” said Hussain. 

He added that many Yemeni immigrants come from humble backgrounds, or are working to provide for their families and can’t always be more civically engaged. 

“Maybe what contributed to this is the travel ban, highlighting the importance of advocacy,” said Hussain. “There’s a new generation of Yemeni Americans who have gone to school and to college who can represent, engage, and be heard.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.